The Most Virginia Woolf of SF Writers
Carol Emshwiller, for me, is a Virginia Woolf-writer. As much as I’ve tried to enjoy Woolf’s work and feel like it should speak to my mighty feminist core, I also always feel like I’m getting a thinly disguised lecture on the nature of gender identity, rather than a complete, engaging story that works as a narrative first and a discourse second. That’s when I manage to finish a Virginia Woolf book at all.
Of Emshwiller and Woolf, of course, the latter writer is the much better known. But Emshwiller, in the right circles, is spoken of in the same tones and has received much more recognition during her lifetime than Woolf did. Emshwiller won the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award for The Mount, which is given to “distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States” and a 2003 Nebula for the short “Creature.” Her work is beloved by some and has received accolades from august institutions like the New York Times, Publishers Weekly and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Given this, it is highly likely that I am alone in my mild distaste for Emshwiller. And, given this, I always try to read whatever work is generating buzz so that I can try to figure out what I’m missing. Which one of the reasons I picked up Carmen Dog, a reprint of Emshwiller’s 1990 novella that was just released by Peapod Classics, an imprint of Small Beer Press, who also brings the world Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a wee ‘zine that is well worth your cash.
Carmen Dog is Emshwiller’s take on Kafka, the writer she most admires, according to this 2003 Bookslut interview. The opening graf of Carmen sets Emshwiller’s conceit up nicely: “The Beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,” the doctor says. “In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.”
The story itself follows the titular dog, whose given name is Pooch, who has begun turning into a woman and whose deepest desire is to sing Carmen. Pooch’s owners aren’t exactly hip on this idea. Her mistress, who is transforming into a snapping turtle, has begun biting the baby. Pooch’s master is eyeballing Pooch as a replacement for said snapping woman of the house. Pooch, long raised to be compliant, rolls over to her master’s wishes for a bit, then rebels after a perceived misunderstanding, taking the baby with her.
But that’s just the set up. Pooch goes on an epic journey that involves mad scientists, wolves, very bad men and acrobats. Along the way, she learns Very Important Lessons about identity and subservience. And while Emshwiller’s imagination is rich and varied, the story itself is unsatisfying and feels strangely dated, despite its being only 15 years old. The scenery is neat, but the destination is very familiar. Thirty years ago, this book would have been at the center of the revolution, along with those by Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas and Pamela Sargent. Now, it just feels like it's simplistically raking over the same old irritations without offering any new insight into them.
I’d like to say that Carmen Dog is an anomaly, that most of Emshwiller’s work doesn’t reduce characters to stereotypes and mouthpieces. But most of it does, like 2003’s short story “Boys,” published at Sci Fiction originals: “We need a new batch of boys. Boys are so foolhardy, impetuous, reckless, rash. They'll lead the way into smoke and fire and battle. I've seen one of my own sons, aged twelve, standing at the top of the cliff shouting, daring the enemy. You'll never win a medal for being too reasonable.”
You don’t need to read the rest of the story to know how it all turns
out. Suffice to say that the men are misguided and take a very Lord of the
Flies approach to life. Maybe I’m just missing something or my feminist
edge has been dulled by too many years of living under the thumb of the patriarchy.
Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Carmen Dog, however, was not a complete loss. The fine folk at Small Beer like to include lagniappes with the books they send out. In my package came a few postcards, a copy of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that featured another Emshwiller story and a comic book interpretation of a small part of Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle as drawn by Steve Lieber. I’ll be sure to pick up a copy of the full book when I order the new McHugh collection in midsummer. I think I’m done trying with Emshwiller, though. Like jazz and Atlanta, the appeal is lost on me.